Founding of Liberal, Missouri
Sikeston (Missouri) Herald, December 1, 1938.
Liberal, Missouri, called by the Christians “the Godless town of Infidelity,” was incorporated fifty-seven years ago it was founded as a town for free-thinkers—but churches and saloons were banned.
The founder of this unique community experiment, George H. Walser, was born in Indiana in 1834. He went to Barton county immediately after the war, where he was soon recognized as one of the best lawyers in southwest Missouri. He was elected prosecuting attorney there, and became a member of the 25th assembly. With an eye for future developments he purchased 2,000 acres of land and selected the site of Liberal as the home of an experiment in intellectual community living. He was an agnostic and placed himself in open opposition to organized religion. “With one foot upon the neck of priestcraft and the other upon the rock of truth,” he declared, “we have thrown our banner to the breeze and challenge the world to produce a better cause for the devotion of man than that of a grand, noble and perfect humanity.”
In harmony with the purpose for organizing the town a number of unusual institutions designed to promote the ideal community were tried during the 1880’s and 1890’s. The first of these was a Sunday Morning Instruction School, where children were taught from “Youth Liberal Guide” and from various works on physics, chemistry, and other sciences. In another class organized for older young people elementary experiments in the physical sciences were performed under the supervision of teachers whose avowed function was to encourage and direct free intelligent discussion. In the Mental Liberty Hall lectures were given each Sunday evening, and scientists, philosophers, socialists, atheists, Protestant ministers and Catholic priests were invited to speak—respectable decorum being the only limitation placed upon any speaker. Large enthusiastic crowds gathered each week in the interest of mental liberty.
The Liberal Normal School and Business Institute was another institution organized by Walser to promote liberal education free from the bias of Christian theology. This school was well advertised and soon had a large enrollment. According to a tract published in 1885, the Liberal Normal School and Business Institute was “located in the liberal town, taught by liberal teachers and courted only the patronage of liberal patrons.” Out of this organization developed Free Thought University, which opened in 1886 with a staff of seven teachers.
Liberal, the asylum of free thinkers, was soon invaded by fundamentalist missionaries and churches, and by saloons. In an effort to throw off the yoke of Walser, the Christians purchased an eighty-acre tract of land adjoining the town, called the place Pedro and moved their houses and places of business out of Liberal.
While Liberal successfully withstood the opposition from Pedro, its original purpose was destroyed by its own internal developments. Walser and others became ardent converts of spiritualism, and he spent $40,000 laying out a camp meeting ground of thirteen acres, with twenty cottages, and auditorium seating 800 people, and grounds landscaped with catalpa trees. In addition he built a magnificent home for himself and called it Catalpa Park. On these elaborate camp grounds a number of international conventions of spiritualism were held, attended by as many as 2,000 converts. Walser died in 1910, a firm believer in the spiritualistic cult.
In the late 1800’s Walser became an author, writing among other works, “Orthopadeia or Atomic Solutions,” “Poems of Leisure” and “The Bouquet.”
The conflict between religion and irreligion eventually ceased in Barton county. The inhabitants of Pedro moved to Liberal, the Walser home became a country club, and among the town’s 848 present inhabitants there is little or no evidence of its stormy history. Situated on the Missouri Pacific and San Francisco railroads, the town is now the second largest in Barton county, and an important trade center for a considerable area in Missouri and Kansas.